River Dance

Various Artists River of Song: A Musical Journey down the Mississippi Smithsonian/Folkways

GET READY for a multicultural transfusion. For three centuries, the mighty Mississippi has provided the life’s blood of the nation, a rolling artery winding its way through America’s midsection from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. It’s a major transportation route, but, just as important, the river is a conduit for a host of cultural influences that began with the native American tribes living along this wild waterway and extended through the 19th-century white European settlers and the teeming Minneapolis funk and post-punk scene that spawned the Replace-ments and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. An upcoming four-part PBS-TV documentary series–airing in January and narrated by neo-folkie Ani DeFranco–pays tribute to that heritage. Of course, the series will get the full treatment: a seven-hour public radio series, a companion book, and this two-CD collection featuring 36 performances by a diverse selection of American artists.

To say that River of Song is eclectic is an understatement–sure, you’ll get some blues and a dash of Dixieland, but the Mississippi is awash with musical styles. The first disc alone features a Chippewa Nation “Powwow Song,” followed by female punkers Babes in Toyland’s defiant 22, followed by legendary folk-blues artist “Spider” John Koerner’s rendition of the chestnut “Sail Away, Ladies,” followed by Soul Asylum’s punkish “I Did My Best,” followed by the Skal Club Spelmanslag’s vaudevillian “Red-Headed Swede,” replete with singing saw and goofy humor. You get the idea. Black spirituals, jazz, a Mexican ranchera, bluegrass, folk, blues, rockabilly, Cajun–a marvelous musical mélange that throughout the life of the nation has helped replenish our thirsty souls.

River of Song gives new meaning to the term Americana: more than a radio format, it’s the very essence of our collective core. GREG CAHILL

Various Artists Slam: The Soundtrack Immortal/Epic

AS HIP-HOP evolves in response to both Euro-electro and Ameri-acoustic trends, even critical advocates of gansta-rap have noted a creeping staleness to the genre. So it’s in the 11th hour of a dry 1998 that Slam: The Soundtrack emerges to reclaim hardcore rap’s birthright as the most humanist and dynamic edge of pop music. Even halfway through the disc, it’s clear that this is a soundtrack that means to matter, not a mere cross-marketing collection. Echoing the film’s theme of poetry as a beacon in the poorhouse-to-jailhouse cycle, Slam: The Soundtrack asserts hip-hop’s status as revolutionary art, from the two jaw-dropping spoken-word pieces in the disc’s second half, to Noreaga’s use of a Charlie Daniels Band sample to simulate Wu-Tang-style production, to Brand Nubian’s displaced veteran cry: “Damn, I wish the government didn’t have my real name.” The disc’s real mark is in its unified sense of looking beyond ghetto darkness. From the film, the character Ron recites, “As I sit here in my jail cell/ About to cry/ I’m thinkin’/ I shot three motherfuckers and I don’t know why,” but the hope that spins beyond that rock-bottom reflection is a strong sense of bringing government back to the people, heard in personal-discovery moments like Tekitha’s “I Can See” and KRS-One’s “Ocean Within.” So don’t believe the hype–hardcore rap can still move mountains. KARL BYRN

Various Artists Lounge, Live from the Mountain Stage Blue Plate Music

Various Artists Louisiana 2, Live from the Mountain Stage Blue Plate Music

Various Artists Celtic Music, Live from the Mountain Stage Blue Plate Music

AMERICAN Public Radio for several years has presented one of the airwaves’ most entertaining live music shows, heard on 120 stations nationwide (none of which are in the Bay Area) and highlighting roots music–blues, folk, rock, and world beat. Blue Plate Music Records, a series of genre-specific recordings distributed by folkie John Prine’s Oh Boy! label, is your chance to get in on the action. Some of these new releases tend to be a bit uneven, but all contain real gems–for instance, the Lounge selection alone dishes up a delightfully wry rendition of North Bay performer Dan Hicks’ wistful “Bottom’s Up,” and a track by sassy septuagenarian Hadda Brooks, a West Coast 1940s R&B artist who revived her career a decade ago and won a prestigious Pioneer Award in 1993. Meanwhile, the line-ups read like a Who’s Who of the various genres, with top artists giving their all in live performances. G.C.

Various Artists Beleza Tropical 2 Luaka Bop/Warner

TALKING HEADS head honcho David Byrne gathers tracks by 15 contemporary Brazilian musicians, whom Byrne hails as “the original masters of the mix.” True to his word–and has David Byrne ever lied to you?–these artists (including such mainstream acts as Gilberto Gil, Marisa Monte, and Sergio Mendes alternating with the quirkier Tom Zé, Daniela Mercury, and Chico Science é Nacao Zumbi) blend a dizzying array of styles, sounds, rhythms, and textures–sambas and funk; sitars and bossa; death metal and African drumming. All in all, a strong case for Brazil as the great South American melting pot. And it kicks! SAL HEPATICA

Pick of the Week

Geoff Muldaur The Secret Handshake Hightone

YOU MIGHT remember Geoff Muldaur, the ex-husband of Maria Muldaur, as a ’60s folkie. After a long recording hiatus, he’s back with a stunning set of traditional folk and blues songs, including a handful of roots-inspired originals. He’s backed by an impressive list of red-hot session players that includes David Grisman, Richard Greene, and Stephen Bruton, among others. It’s obvious from this release that Muldaur has a great record collection, and that’s good news for the rest of us, since he also possesses an uncanny ability to infuse each of these tunes with a rich blend of warmth and down-home vitality. Muldaur’s own “Got to Find Blind Lemon” is an instant classic, a spiritual road trip beckoning hardcore blues fans to come along for the ride. One of the year’s best. G.C.

From the December 17-23, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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